Harvey, Irma, and the hand of God

Earlier this week I read a conversation between two bloggers. One is a Christian; the other is an atheist. The atheist accused the God of the Christian of being genocidal. (Indeed, the rage the atheist expressed against an imaginary, Bronze-Age, fairy-tale god seems incongruous, but that is beside the point.) The atheist mentioned the flood from the days of Noah, as well as God’s command to the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites and the Amalekites. Causing the death of so many people, whether through direct action or by divine command, the God of the Christian failed to meet the standards held by the atheist blogger.

One would have to be an atheist to dare to judge God. Anyone who knows even a little about the power of God and the wisdom of God would find it hard to try to measure God by his or her own standards. One can defend God by speaking of the evil of those people he chose to destroy. The people of Noah’s generation were a blight upon the planet. The Canaanites were so evil that they killed their own children and slept with priestesses as part of their religion. A good God, a just God, cannot tolerate evil. If God does not strike down sinners, then God is not worthy of honor and praise.

If my pet cat was afflicted with fleas or intestinal worms, I would take vigorous steps to destroy the parasites. My conscience would not be troubled by the death of dozens of fleas. Even if they were a very rare flea, a species of flea that was endangered, I would kill them all for the good of my cat. In the same way, for the good of the Israelites, God wanted the Canaanites killed. When the Israelites failed to obey God’s command, the Canaanites managed to make the Israelites equally evil, so that God had to strike down his own people, using the Assyrians and Babylonians to bring death and destruction upon the sinners who had rejected God and his commands.

God is powerful, wise, and just, but God is also love. Love is the very nature of his being. God does not enjoy punishing sinners; he does not delight in the death of his enemies. God wants all people to repent of their sins, to turn to him, and to receive from him the gift of eternal life. To make this happen, God became one of us. He lived among us, following his own rules, earning the rewards of total obedience. Then he turned the tables upon himself. He took up our guilt and our punishment, facing the wrath of his Father while hanging on a cross. At the same time, he bequeathed to us the rewards he earned by his perfection.

Christians are not called to exterminate God’s enemies—not even Muslims, not even atheists. Christians are called to warn sinners of the cost of their sins and to call for repentance. When those sinners repent, Christians are called to share the promises of God, to invite the sinners to enjoy God’s forgiveness, eternal life in a perfect world, and a share in God’s victory over all evil. Yet all of us remain sinners. Together we live in a sin-polluted world. God does not rely only upon Christians to speak of the wrath of God’s judgment. God uses his creation to demonstrate the power of his judgment and to remind all people of the Day of the Lord that is coming.

This brings me to Harvey and Irma. Those do not sound like the names of powerful storms. Harvey and Irma should be the parents in a 1950s television show, a comedy about an average American family. In the 1950s, when children misbehaved, they sometimes received a slap or two on their backsides from Harvey and Irma. No one considered spankings “child abuse” in those days. Society understood that, to correct children, to turn them away from wrongdoing, sometimes one must first get their attention.

Harvey and Irma may be that slap on the backside that the United States needed. Things have been getting out of control around here lately, and someone needed to react. The ugliness of hatred does not belong in our nation, but it took powerful hurricanes to quiet the shouting and to force people to care about their neighbors. Old Testament prophets lectured the wealthy few in Israel about their abuse of wealth, gathering it at the expense of their neighbors and keeping hold onto it, ignoring their neighbor’s needs. The aftermath of these storms may help to redistribute our national wealth, not through government regulation and taxation, but through compassion and a desire to help those in need.

All authority comes from God and represents his authority. Yet some American voters thought so little of their government that they cast their votes for a celebrity with clear and obvious character flaws. Worse, others began—the very next day after the election—to plot his overthrow. For months they have been challenging every one of his decisions, constantly depicting him in the worst light possible, and searching high and low for excuses to overturn the results of the election. The nightly news has become a morass of accusations and criticisms, loudly and shrilly and repeatedly offered as if repetition would make them true. (In most of the world, these broadcasts would be considered treasonous.) For all the damage they brought, Harvey and Irma have given us something else to talk about and to hear about and to care about.

We sinners need such reminders, from time to time, that the sinful world stands under judgment. But do you suppose that the people who died because of these storms were worse sinners than those who survived? Jesus would say no, “but unless you repent, you will likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5). The atheist might blame God-who-does-not-exist for allowing the violence and destruction of Harvey and Irma, that of the Mexican earthquake, and that of the wildfires in western states, offering that random violence as proof that God-who-does-not-exist cannot be good or just.

Evil is random and unfair. God permits us to see evil—whether the violence of nature or the crimes of terrorists—so we can distinguish good from evil, and so we can hunger and thirst for what is good. Any Christians who died in the storms or the earthquake or the fires is with Christ in Paradise awaiting the resurrection. They are happy to be there; they are not complaining. Unbelievers who perished would have died from something else sooner or later. They are no worse off now than they would be had they survived to die another day.

Believers and unbelievers lost property in these storms. Tragic as the loss may be, it also reminds all of us to value heavenly treasures rather than earthly wealth. Insurance companies, relief organizations, and compassionate neighbors will help to restore or replace what was lost. Along the way, jobs will be provided, meaning that families will be fed and sheltered. More precautions will be taken to make homes and other businesses safer from future storms. Meanwhile, one can only hope that another blessing from these tribulations will be less hatred, less rebellion, and less division among Americans—more compassion, more cooperation, and more faith. J.

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Book report: The God Delusion

 

Richard Dawkins is a scientist, a writer, and an atheist. When I saw a chance to grab a free copy of his best-selling attack on religion, The God Delusion, I seized it. This month I have read Dawkins’ book and am ready to offer a review.

Some parts of the book are quite interesting and even useful—particularly those near the beginning and the end of the book. Much of what exists between the two is less satisfying reading. For a while, I thought that Dawkins might be engaged in deliberate satire, mocking the earnest but shrill defenders of religion whom he deplores. Alas, Dawkins is equally earnest and equally shrill in his attacks upon religion. His certainty that science provides correct answers to the questions of the universe blinds him to the reality that, at best, he can provide, for an agnostic, evidence that creation and evolution are equally plausible (or, one might add, equally implausible).

I was prepared for better writing. Dawkins’ friend, Douglas Adams, was able to skewer religion while provoking laughter. Although the back cover promises “a hard-hitting, impassioned, but humorous rebuttal of religious belief,” most of what passes for humor is snide sarcasm. I’ve seen better-phrased rebuttals of religious belief in the comments on various blogs, written by amateurs with no published books to their credit.

Logic is an important tool in the pursuit of scientific investigation, but Dawkins employs most of the logical fallacies identified centuries ago by Aristotle. He lists notorious abuses done in the name of religion, as if this was sufficient to condemn all religion. By the same logic, one could condemn science because it has caused pollution and nuclear bombs. He cherry-picks the Bible, reporting the statements he finds least believable without bothering to establish context for any of the quotes he selects. He references religious leaders who reject the truth of the Bible, as if their authority was somehow greater than that of religious leaders who still trust the Bible.

Dawkins firmly suggests that no one should speak of “Christian children” or “Muslim children.” He claims that no one can be part of any religious group without years of training and indoctrination. He offers no evidence for this claim. Dawkins speaks disparagingly of any person who does not accept evolution as a scientific fact beyond all doubt. In this book he never presents a shred of evidence that evolution is a scientific fact. (I am aware that he has written other books for that purpose, but somewhere in this book he should at least summarize his case for evolution since he uses opposition to the theory of evolution as a reason to attack religion. Given the poor communication skills he shows in this book, I am not likely to seek to read his books about evolutionary theory.

Dawkins also complains that the topic of religion is given a free pass in society, unlike any other topic. Bizarre behavior that should be unacceptable is allowed if it can be labeled as religious. People are unwilling to confront religious ideas with opposition, although they will debate any other subject. I don’t know where Dawkins has been living. I experience less tolerance of religious diversity than of cultural diversity, gender-identification diversity, or many other kinds of diversity in the world today. Perhaps Dawkins’ exaggeration balances that of the Christians who claim to be persecuted by those who say “Happy Holidays” to them.

Near the beginning of the book, Dawkins offers a usable distinction of theists, deists, pantheists, and atheists. (Rather than pantheists, he should have written panentheists. The former believe that everything is God, while the latter believe that God is contained in everything—a necessary distinction.) Many scientists, Dawkins says, are pantheists, viewing God as a result of the universe rather than its cause. While Dawkins remains an atheist, he shows some sympathy for the thought that a mighty God could develop in a universe of increasing complexity, although he says that a perfect God could not exist prior to such a universe. Nowhere in the book does Dawkins address the idea of entropy (the tendency of closed systems to become less complex over time), but his distinction allows for interesting discussion of these four approaches to belief in God.

When I was in college, I raised this question: Is it easier to believe that advocates of evolution were created or that advocates of creation have evolved? Dawkins provides a fine answer, explaining how religion could be a necessary part of human evolution, reacting to the world as it was seen in earlier times. He writes eloquently about the gaps in human knowledge that once were filled by religion but that now are closed by science. Reversing the metaphor, he speaks of science ripping away barriers to our sight, revealing a far more spectacular universe than our ancestors could sense or comprehend.

Dawkins does not realize, though, that believers find the vast universe unknown to our forbearers to be additional reason to praise the God who called the universe into being and shaped it according to his plan. Dawkins’ confrontation between science and religion is fueled by religious leaders, past and present, who have rejected science as a whole. Yet his approach borders on satire of religious discussion rather than a genuine attack upon religion as a whole. He seems to believe that no one can be scientific and religious at the same time.

To maintain an open mind, one must (from time to time) read the work of those with whom one disagrees. Perhaps the greatest benefit, for me, of reading this book is to confirm that rejection of religion does not result in clearer thinking and a healthier view of life as a whole. Dawkins demonstrates the truth that one can be a brilliant scientist without being an expert in other fields. I thank him for his effort, but I am not convinced by what he writes to abandon my faith. J.